Colombia: The Right Gathers Momentum

September 25, 2007

In the countdown to the May 26 presidential elections, Colombians are bracing for increasing violence while support grows for independent hard-line candidate Alvaro Uribe Vélez. Frustration with guerrilla violence and growing war-mongering by Colombian officials and the media have contributed to a dramatic swing to the right, while the rising right-wing paramilitary violence remains largely ignored. Predictions of escalating urban warfare following the rupture of the stagnating peace process promise conflictive times for the final months of Andrés Pastrana’s presidency.

Pastrana abandoned his administration’s primary focus, peace talks with the largest Colombian guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), on February 20, hours after they hijacked a commercial airliner and kidnapped a Colombian senator. The rupture was not unexpected. Colombian and U.S. policymakers had increasingly criticized the process as stagnant and unproductive. Much of the controversy focused on Pastrana’s decision to hold the talks in the large section of southern Colombia controlled by the FARC as a “demilitarized zone.” On January 9, Pastrana issued an ultimatum threatening to force the FARC to leave the zone if military presence was not allowed in surrounding areas; a sustained lobbying effort by the UN and the ten-nation “Group of Friends” mediating group temporarily salvaged the process with a new timeline for a cease-fire agreement by April 7. Escalating FARC attacks following the January agreement contributed to a growing frustration with the process. Sources close to the Pastrana administration report that the decision to end the process was not widely consulted within the administration, but the Colombian embassy in Washington played a decisive role by communicating U.S. policymakers’ desire to break off the talks.

Responsibility for the breakdown of the talks has been largely attributed to the FARC, but military intransigence, unwillingness to offer real reforms and escalating paramilitary violence by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) all contributed to the lack of progress. In fact, political, economic and human rights reforms never even made it to the table. The three-year talks focused entirely on mechanisms for negotiations. Real civil society participation remained largely nonexistent, and violence against peace activists increased during the talks.

In the wake of the collapse of the talks, congressional elections held March 10 reflected both the country’s polarization and the growing strength of the right. The two candidates who got the most votes are indicative of the split within the country: The leading recipient of votes was General Cé sar Canal, the former commander of the Third Brigade in Cali, who had resigned 18 months ago in protest over the government’s negotiation with the National Liberation Army (ELN) following a massive kidnapping. In second place was Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla who accepted a government amnesty and has become an outspoken opponent of political corruption. While the Liberal Party initially obtained the highest number of seats (38 out of 102 in the Senate and 30 out of 166 in the House), the second-place Conservative Party announced immediately after the elections that many of those elected under its banner planned to support right-wing independent Uribe, which would make him the candidate with the highest number of supporters in the Congress.

Analysts questioned whether elections were free and fair in many areas of Colombia. Five Congressional candidates campaigned in absentia while being held hostage by the FARC; one was elected to office while all remain captive. Following the FARC’s kidnapping of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, many candidates announced they would not campaign in rural areas.

One of the most significant and most difficult to measure electoral issues has been the extent to which paramilitary pressure shaped electoral results. Paramilitary groups reportedly carried out “armed campaigning” in many parts of the country in support of Uribe. Liberal Senator Piedad Córdoba reported on Colombian television that in rural areas where she had traditionally campaigned, paramilitaries were threatening voters; despite her high popularity in the polls she lost her Senate seat. Human rights groups have reported paramilitary threats of massacres and assassinations if paramilitary-approved candidates did not win in regions including Antioquia, the Atlantic Coast, and the Middle Magdalena. Following the elections, AUC spokesman Salvatore Mancuso told the press that the paramilitaries controlled more than 35% of Congress. Political violence even prevents those who flee from it from participating in political life: As many as 10% of eligible voters who are internally displaced cannot vote because they are lacking the proper documents. Whereas Colombians who can afford to emigrate can vote via absentee ballot, and even have a congressional slot reserved for representing Colombians abroad.

The May 26 presidential elections have become the focus of much media attention and speculation. While the outcome is uncertain, and Colombian polls are notoriously unreliable, Uribe appears to be a sure thing, possibly in the first round. Should he win the presidency, he would be the first modern Colombian president not representing one of the two traditional parties. Uribe’s popularity indicates the degree to which the political and economic elite has consolidated power outside the historic bipartisan division of political power, as well as the shift to the right of the majority of urban Colombians. Uribe spent most of his political career as a Liberal, leaving the party only after Serpa’s nomination last year as presidential candidate. Greatly served by his popularity among the Colombian media, he has campaigned on two major platforms: a hard-line position towards the guerrillas, including relentless criticism of Pastrana’s peace efforts, and efficient government. Journalist Francisco “Pacho” Santos, has returned from exile in Spain to run on the Uribe ticket as vice presidential candidate. A member of one of Colombia’s most powerful families (also the owner of Colombia’s largest single—and Bogotá’s only—daily newspaper), Santos has received international renown for spearheading the “Free Country” anti-kidnapping organization. Fluent in English and well liked in Washington, Santos brings a more moderate edge to the campaign, while retaining the tough anti-guerrilla stance. Santos himself was kidnapped by the Medellín cartel while a journalist.

Trailing in third place for much of the campaign, Uribe shot up in the polls beginning this year. He was featured on the cover of newsmagazine Semana in a superman costume, and a special edition focusing on his campaign was published by rival magazine Cambio: This and other coverage has demonstrated the favorable treatment of Uribe by the Colombian media.

Uribe built his political career in Antioquia, one of Colombia’s most populous, prosperous and violent departments, infamous as home of the Medellín drug cartel. As governor, his “efficient government” program focused on privatization of public services and on political reform. Uribe has long advocated more civilian participation in military operations—plans that critics fear could strengthen the paramilitaries. During his tenure as governor, he was an enthusiastic supporter of rural security cooperatives known as Convivir. These groups essentially legalized the paramilitary activity that had been outlawed in 1989, allowing civilians to carry out armed patrolling and intelligence functions under the control of local military commanders. The Convivir were widely criticized by human rights groups for involving the civilian population in the conflict, committing abuses and working with established illegal paramilitary forces.

Although they do not officially endorse any candidates, a communiqué on the AUC’s website notes that “[should] the Alvaro Uribe administration arrive at the presidency, [it] would benefit the great majority of Colombians.”[1] He was recently accused by rival Liberal presidential candidate Horacio Serpa of being the “paramilitary candidate.” Uribe has also been accused of having had links with drug trafficking in the 1980s, accusations that he vigorously denies. He maintains that his connections to the infamous Ochoa drug trafficking family were limited to thoroughbred horse shows, a popular upper-class sport in Antioquia for which the Ochoas were famous.[2] He also denies allegations that part of his campaign funds originated in Pablo Escobar’s neighborhood development project, Medellín without Slums.[3]

Liberal candidate Horacio Serpa could possibly muster more votes than anticipated through the Liberal Party machinery. With a history in the progressive wing of the Liberal Party, and a long career in public office, Serpa has a reputation for backing efforts for peace and speaking out for human rights. His close relationship with former president Ernesto Samper, however, accused of accepting campaign money from the Cali cartel, as well as his ambiguous campaign have hurt him in the polls. Other independent candidates offer little threat; former Foreign Minister Noemí Sanín has dramatically fallen in the polls and her closest advisors have defected. Running under the banner of the newly created Social and Political Front (FSP), Luis Eduardo Garzón left the presidency of the United Confederation of Workers, Colombia’s largest labor union federation, to run for president as the candidate of the democratic left. The FSP is attempting to unite progressive sectors under a reform platform supporting peace while remaining critical of the guerrillas. With less than 4% support, Garzón has little chance of winning but has received ample airtime from the media to offer a coherent critique of current political practice in Colombia and support for peace and economic reforms. While much can change in the weeks before the elections, there seems little in the way of Uribe’s rapid rise to power.

Meanwhile, the escalation of the war following the rupture of the peace process remains the major concern of human rights and humanitarian workers. An increase in urban attacks and sabotage by the guerrillas and efforts to increase political legitimacy by the paramilitaries are apparent, but the extent to which this will result in a dramatic increase in bloodshed is unclear.

Immediately following the break in the talks, the army began an intensive bombing campaign in the former demilitarized zone. The FARC maintain a significant presence in the zone, and the Colombian military have announced that efforts to regain control of the area will take at least six months. A general and several colonels resigned because of initial military defeats, and some critics claim that the military remains unready to launch a major military escalation. Increases in the military budget have been approved, and the Minister of Defense, the Vice President and the Human Rights Advisor have requested more money for the military and less money for social spending.[4]

Pastrana has declared 19 municipalties including the former demilitarized zone and surrounding areas as special “theaters of operations,” a mini-state of siege allowed by the new Defense and National Security Law, passed last August. Despite opposition from human rights groups and the National Human Rights Ombudsman, this law gives judicial police military functions, allows for indefinite detentions and establishes military control over civilian movement and authorities through the designation of specific “theaters of operation.” On April 12, however, the Colombian Consitutional Court declared the law unconstitutional and the future of the “theaters of operations” remains unclear. The Pastrana administration has also announced plans to introduce anti-terrorism legislation in a closed congressional session.

The FARC are also expected to shift military strategies. During the 1990s, the FARC expanded their numbers and carried out a series of humiliating military activities, overrunning remote army bases and holding several hundred soldiers and police hostage.[5] Recent FARC operations have focused on attacks on infrastructure, and analysts anticipate an increase in kidnapping and urban warfare. Bombings of electrical grids left thousands without power in more than four departments, and attacks on the water supply got a lot of press and concern. Colombian police and military also claim to have deactivated numerous car bombs in recent days.
The AUC have continued their political offensive. Paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño’s memoir, My Confession, continues to sell briskly, including pirated versions on the streets of downtown Bogotá, and communiqués from the AUC webpage are reproduced regularly in the daily news. Paramilitaries have circulated photocopied lists of community rules in Barrancabermeja, including curfews for teenagers and regulations for garbage pick-up. Failure to comply results in forced labor and in some cases detention and torture.[6]

The paramilitaries’ new strategy includes a reduction in large-scale massacres and an increase in selective assassinations and threats in an effort to avoid international scrutiny and improve community relations. “The paramilitaries have changed their military strategy as well. There is less visible joint patrolling, more work in coordinated sweeps to control territory during army offensives,” says one security expert who requested his name not be used. “This will make it more difficult for human rights groups to prove military-paramilitary links, while increasing the paramilitary control.”

Paramilitaries have also set their sites on urban areas. Traditionally, they have taken over the small towns in rural areas, while working with members of the police and army. Over the past year, paramilitary groups have consolidated control in cities, including Valledupar, capital of the department of César in northern Colombia. By last fall, church leaders estimated that 85% of the Atlantic Coast was controlled by paramilitaries. In November, paramilitaries “took” Valledupar, going into neighborhoods with lists and meeting with community activists and local politicians in each area. Anyone who complained became a military target. “It’s a very tense situation for anyone working with humanitarian assistance,” local church employees said. “We’ve been forced to close some of the programs we offered. The paramilitaries would use program cars to transport medicine and weapons, putting us too much at risk.”[7]

The paramilitaries are using existing gangs to gain entry into major cities such as Bogotá and Medellín. They offer higher wages, more sophisticated weaponry and a measure of power for unemployed youth. In Medellín, many of these gang members were previously employed as hitmen for the cartels. Working for paramilitary groups, these gang members have been able to expand their territorial control in poor neighborhoods.8 In Bogotá, community activists report that young men are “lining up” for jobs with the paramilitaries in poor neighborhoods.“They pay 380,000 pesos [approximately US$160] a month, when the best most of these kids can hope for is 100,000 pesos a month for 10 hours a day running errands or doing manual labor,” said one activist. “Right now, they are training them and using them for intelligence, but the real war hasn’t started yet.”[9]

In the municipality of Soacha, one of the sprawling shantytowns that have crept up the mountains surrounding southern Bogotá, paramilitary groups have announced a major presence through graffiti, threats and selective assassinations. Many of the inhabitants have arrived in the past four years, fleeing political violence and rural poverty. While local municipal authorities acknowledge hearing of threats and killings, they say that everyone, including themselves, fears reprisals and refuses to register complaints.

While Colombians brace for the year ahead, the United States is poised to begin greater and more direct counterinsurgency assistance. Last March President George W. Bush proposed $98 million in aid to create and train new Colombian army battalions to defend oil pipelines from guerrilla attack. The international focus on terrorism, FARC intransigence and the paramilitary chokehold on many areas will make any real debate on alternatives for Colombia difficult.

Winifred Tate is a Ph.D. candidate at New York University currently
conducting research on the history of the Colombian human rights movement. She has worked on human rights issues for the past decade, including three years as a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

1. “Las AUC emitimos nuestro concepto sobre la actual coyuntura politica,”posted on, signed by Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso, dated February 19, 2002.
2. “Uribe Sin Tapujos,”Semana, February 24, 2002; “Colombia’s Hard Right,” Joseph Contreras, Newsweek, March 25, 2002.
3. “Uribe Vélez refuta frases escritas por Fernando Garavito,”El Espectador, February 19, 2002.
4. “Mindefensa pide aumentar el gasto militar y bajar inversión social,”El Tiempo (Bogotá), March 13, 2002.
5. Most were released in a prisoner exchange with the military; approximately 50 are still being held hostage.
6. Interview, Putumayo, December 12, 2001 and Bogotá, February 15, 2002.
7. Interview, December 8, 2001.
8. Interview, Medellín, February 5, 2002. See also Joseph Contreras, Colombia’s Hard Right” Newsweek International, March 25, 2002.
9. Interview in Bogotá, February 25, 2002.

Tags: Colombia, elections, mano dura, Alvaro Uribe, politics, paramilitaries

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